The play begins, as many family plays do, with a middle class family getting ready for a birthday party for Grandma. And just as most plays like this go, something goes awry, someone decides not to come and there are hurt feelings and anger.
Then Fairview, about to be onstage at Spring Street Studios courtesy of 4th Wall Theatre Company, makes a jump to the extraordinary, certain to be challenging to the audience. It starts off with a Black family, the Frasiers, whose roles on stage from the first act are replayed and commented on by white actors in the second.
Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Susan Smith Blackburn Award for Fairview, described as a powerful statement on the Black experience as well as the lens through which many whites see Black people.
Aaron Brown is directing the 95-minute play whose three acts are seen without intermission. Although Fairview is sometimes described as a comedy, Brown calls it "A special play. I like to think of it more of a theatrical experience than a straight play that is going to be clearly defined as comedy or drama."
"One of the brilliant things about the piece is it’s so reflective of everyday life and so as the actors and I are delving into this piece, we are finding how the microcosm of this play is mirroring the macrocosm of society.," Brown said. "And even in the trivial ways or ways you might just throw away as we delve deeper — oh no, it all matters. It's all pointing to one beautiful orchestration."
In talking about the play, Brown is very careful not to give away its twists and turns.
"The play is divided into three acts. One way I like to think about it is we recognize in Act 2 that the family we saw in Act 1 is under surveillance, that they're being watched. Act 2 is the same action from Act 1 but through a different lens, from the perspective of those who are watching rather than those who are living it.
"And then in Act 3 those worlds collide."
Asked why he thinks the play works so well, Brown said: "I think the play is incredibly smart is incredibly challenging and it is incredibly and inherently theatrical. There are so many times that we see plays that are cinematic or they are employing different ideas from different mediums but here the playwright is using things that are inherently related to the theatrical conventions we're used to and the play allows people to feel comfort in those things that we know, those aspects of theater that we know.
"Over the course of three acts [she] puts all those things in, shakes them up and turns them all upside down in a way that makes it more impactful for the audience.
"This little play is a conundrum that is best to be experienced rather than just talked about."
Cast members include Ciara Shabree, Shawanna Renee Rivon, Derrick Brent II, Jasmine Renee Thomas, Wesley Whitson, Courtney Lomelo, Faith Fossett, and Drake Simpso "I had heard about this play in grad school.. (Brown has an MFA in directing from Baylor.) I just heard wonderful things about it, I read it when it was published and I was scared of it. As a director there’s so much not on this page you have to figure out to make this play work.
"When the opportunity arose to do it I thought I’m scared of it in a way that’s a good scare because the art and what it means for community is invaluable. And the sort of conversations that it prompts and we hope people leave the theater having are incredibly important and I wanted to be a part of doing that for the Houston community."
Audience members are a crucial ingredient in the chemistry of the play, he said. "Part of the point of this play is that we present the question and let the audience answer it for themselves. We believe the audience is our final collaborator for this production which is scary because they come in really late.We are prepared that this play will feel different every night depending on who's in the room and reactions. And we believe that this play will evoke reactions, strong reactions.
Brown said he was involved in theater from a very young age from religious dramas played out in church to grade school teachers who would use poetry and theatrical parts in their courses. He got his undergrad at Oklahoma City University in musical theater and went to Baylor for directing. Besides theater, he has a long-held interest in education. He's been a professor of theater at Sam Houston University and is now moving to a similar position at Texas State — both schools are known for their theater programs.
Asked who needs to see this play, Brown said "I think we all need to see it. As we live in a world that is more and more divisive, I think trying to understand one another. There’s a point made at the end of the play about the title, this idea of what equality, respect and community should mean and can mean if we put in the work to do it. I believe that work is a requirement of the entire community. And so that's truly why I believe in this play, the power of theater to ignite those conversations and conversations can turn into decisions and decisions can turn into actions and actions change the world."
Performances are scheduled for May 26 through June 17 (preview performance May 25) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sundays at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. For more information, call 832-767-4991 or visit 4thwalltheatreco.com. $17-$53. (Pay what you can performance on Monday June 12.)